Lis Bokt/The Geek Group
Geek Group founder Chris Boden (right) works with Michael Borzkowski on what they hope will be the world's largest Newton's Cradle — perhaps better known in smaller form as the desktop toy known as balance balls.
Geek Group founder Chris Boden (right) works with Michael Borzkowski on what they hope will be the world's largest Newton's Cradle — perhaps better known in smaller form as the desktop toy known as balance balls. Lis Bokt/The Geek Group
Chris Boden likes to say that he hacked college: He went to classes, he lived on campus — but he never enrolled.
"I couldn't afford to," Boden says. "But I wanted to learn, and I found very quickly that if you actually have a sincere, passionate desire to learn and you don't care about the degree, that the whole world is a school."
Boden never got a degree. But he kept the passion, which led to creating The Geek Group, a consortium of people devoted to good old-fashioned scientific and technical experimentation.
The Geek Group has members all over the world, but its headquarters is in an old machine shop just north of Kalamazoo, Mich. The Geek Group has gained some attention for its series of videos on YouTube showing their experiments, but it could be more than viral entertainment: Boden thinks his vision could help transform the sputtering economy in the upper Midwest.
Inside A Lab
Boden says anyone can come to his lab and just play.
"It's like if you could go to Mythbusters and hang out," Boden says, referring to a popular television show on the Discovery Channel. "It's a real place."
Boden's lab resembles the set of Mythbusters, with crazy experiments all over the place — such as a Farnsworth–Hirsch Fusor. A vacuum chamber device that's relatively simple to build, the fusor uses accelerated ions to generate low-power nuclear fusion reactions inside a small glass container. Boden calls it "a star in a jar."
Next to that, there's a magnetics demonstration that shoots an aluminum disc straight up to the ceiling. There also is a high-voltage lab, where Boden demonstrates the "Thumper."
"It's like the finger of God," Boden says.
He sets a Mountain Dew can on a piece of metal attached to an obscene amount of electrical power. We stand back 30 feet, and Boden tells me to mash a big red button. The can is vaporized. I can still feel the thump in my chest.
This place is a geek's dream house.
Lis Bokt/The Geek Group
Chris Boden says anyone can come in and use these tools to build a prototype product and launch a business.
Chris Boden says anyone can come in and use these tools to build a prototype product and launch a business. Lis Bokt/The Geek Group
Making A Company
Lis Bokt first heard about The Geek Group while surfing the Internet six years ago. She was living in Toronto at the time.
"I came here, and I saw all of the really awesome machines and toys that I knew that I had wanted to use for something, but there was no way I would ever be able to get one for myself," Bokt says.
After one visit, Bokt decided to move to Kalamazoo. She's now executive director of The Geek Group, which is a nonprofit and stays afloat largely through donations and grants.
But it also serves as a kind of research-and-development facility for small companies that can't afford their own lab. And this is what gets Boden really excited. He takes me into a room with a milling machine that anyone can use to develop prototypes.
"This machine creates jobs," Boden says. "It doesn't just make parts. It doesn't just make metal shavings and plastic shavings. This makes jobs."
That's what brought in Pat Hanna, who runs a company called One2Products. His eyes light up at all the science experiments. But he came here for a much more practical reason:
"Well, we had developed our product that we're hoping these guys can help us with, and we were looking for somebody to do some simple machining and also to keep it quiet for a little while," Hanna says.
Lis Bokt/The Geek Group
A Farnsworth-Hirsch Fusor built by The Geek Group. The device, which is relatively simple to make, can generate low-power nuclear fusion reactions. Boden calls the device "a star in a jar."
A Farnsworth-Hirsch Fusor built by The Geek Group. The device, which is relatively simple to make, can generate low-power nuclear fusion reactions. Boden calls the device "a star in a jar." Lis Bokt/The Geek Group
The Geek Group charges for some of this work. It's one of the many ways to keep the lights on, and they do use a lot of electricity here. The insurance bills are also through the roof. But Boden has a vision to expand The Geek Group: build a 40-acre campus, but without degrees or tuition. He says it would be a place where people could do "open source" research and development.
"But I can't get economic development to care because ... we're the weird guys," Boden says. "We're the guys out on the edge of town that blow stuff up."
Boden believes The Geek Group would get more attention if it were in Silicon Valley. But Silicon Valley doesn't have the kind of unemployment that's ravaged Michigan or the manufacturing heritage.
He believes that this is a place that could use some weird people on the edge of town. This is a place that could use some real geeks.